Senator John Fetterman takes charge of Senate life after treatment for depression

WASHINGTON — Before the Pennsylvania Senator. John Fettermann check himself into the hospital for clinical depression in February, he walked the halls of the Senate with a stone face and dressed in formal attire. These days, she is back wearing sports hoodies and shorts he was known before becoming a senator.

Male senators are expected to wear jackets and ties on the Senate floor, but Fetterman has a solution. He votes from the Democratic locker room doorway or side entrance, making sure his “yay” or “nay” is recorded before ducking back down. In between voting last week, Fetterman's hood stayed on for a press conference with four of his fellow Democrats in suits, the 6-foot tall Fetterman towering over his peers.

People close to Fetterman say his relaxed, comfortable style is a sign the senator is making a strong recovery after six weeks on the sidelines. inpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where his clinical depression was treated with medication and he was fitted with hearing aids for hearing loss that made it more difficult for him to communicate. His hospitalization came less than a year after his strokes during his Senate campaign which he says nearly killed him, and from which he has continued to recover.

“He set a new dress code,” joked Vermont Sen. Peter Welch, who is the only newly elected Democrat to the Senate and spent a lot of time with Fetterman during their orientation earlier in the year. “He is struggling. And now he is a joy to be around.”

Senators occasionally vote in casual attire — Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for example, has been known to sometimes show up in tracksuit. But Fetterman's regulars redefined fashion in the sultry Senate. He turned heads each day as he walked the halls in his signature baggy Carhartt T-shirt and saggy gym shorts, his bulky frame surrounded by the more formally dressed Washington types buzzing around the Capitol.

The senator's staff initially required him to always wear a suit, which he was notorious for loathing. But after checks with Senate lawmakers upon his return, it became clear he could continue wearing the casual clothes that are often his uniform at home in Pennsylvania, as long as he doesn't walk onto the Senate floor.

Welch said Fetterman was quiet and aloof when he first came to Washington, and often sat behind closed caucus meetings. Now he stands and speaks, occasionally joking and rambling with senior Pennsylvania senator, Democrat Bob Casey.

Fetterman, Welch, and Republican Senator Katie Britt of Alabama became friends at orientation, and the two colleagues remained close to her throughout her recovery. Britt says that in those early days Fetterman would only really engage if he struck up a conversation, but they bonded over having children of the same age and the fact that Britt's soccer player ex husband Wesley was as tall as a Pennsylvania senator. As Fetterman walked into the hospital, Britt's staff brought food to his office next door.

Britt then visited him at Walter Reed, at his request, and found Fetterman had completely changed. “When I walked in that day, the energy and attitude was so different,” Britt said in an interview.

Now, he's loud and friendly, he says — even shouting “Alabama!” at her in the hallway when she saw him last week, hitting him and asking about his husband and family.

“That shows you the difference treatment can make,” says Britt. “What a sight to behold.”

Fetterman's decision to seek treatment won out bipartisan acclaim from his colleagues, a sharp turn from the bruises Senate race against the Republic of Mehmet Oz which is the most expensive in the country.

Joe Calvello, a spokesman for Fetterman who has worked for him since the start of the campaign and before his stroke, said his boss was more back to his old self after a difficult year. Fetterman knew all of his staff after he returned to the Senate on April 17, befriending his Senate colleagues and talking about the progressive issues he was campaigning for.

“It's nice to be on the other side of that,” said Calvello.

Last week, Fetterman stood alongside other senators in suits to urge President Joe Biden to raise his own debt ceiling under a clause in the 14th Amendment instead of negotiating with Republicans. He also questioned bank executives at trial — dressed in a suit, as he did for a committee meeting — and asked whether they should be subject to working conditions like those Republicans are proposing for food aid recipients in debt ceiling negotiations.

Fetterman's words were still choppy and sometimes hard to understand, because of his batting. He has auditory process disorder, which makes it more difficult to speak fluently and quickly process spoken conversation into meaning. He uses an iPad in congressional conversations, meetings, and hearings that transcribes spoken words in real time, and when he speaks in public, he often appears to be perusing a piece of paper. He rarely spoke to reporters in the hallways.

When questioning bank executives, his words sometimes get mixed up, due to difficulty processing his hearing. “Shouldn't you have job requirements after we send your bank, put billions in your bank?” Fetterman asked.

The senator's conservative critics frequently jumped over his faults, mocking them on television shows.

But his chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, tweeted that the moment at the banking trial was unscripted — and even surprised him.

“John Fetterman just asked the CEO of Silicon Valley Bank if there should be job requirements for bankrupt CEOs and dear reader, I almost fell off my chair,” Jentleson wrote.

Constituents she met said it took time to get used to her speech impediment.

The president of the Pennsylvania Farmers' Union, Michael Kovach, said Fetterman suddenly appeared while Kovach was meeting with senator staff in Washington. It was only Fetterman's second day back, but he stayed for half an hour, using a transcription tool to read Kovach's responses in their discussion about helping farmers maintain good conservation practices on their land.

Kovach said Fetterman asked thoughtful questions, made thoughtful comments and joked about beard jealousy with Kovach, who has a long, grizzled beard.

“It was the same Fetterman I remember as the lieutenant governor, only it was hard for him to communicate, so the elephant in the room was definitely the screen he was reading from,” said Kovach. “It's a little annoying, but something I quickly got used to.”

Fetterman also returned to social media, which had been a staple of his campaign before his stroke. This past week he posted a a photo of him and Welch on Twitter sitting on the Senate lawn and wearing hoodies.

Welch will soon be hosting Fetterman and Britt at his house for dinner. Fetterman was “on his game” these days, Welch said.

Another fellow Democrat, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, said she noticed Fetterman was “inwardly focused” when he arrived in Washington. But he now likes to make friends and make jokes.

“Really, really great to see, this is a great message to send to people looking for help,” said Duckworth. “It makes a difference.”